The first rays of early-morning sunlight streamed through the slats of the window shade, and she blinked at the intrusive brightness as her mother shook her awake. With sleep still heavy on her tongue and the line of light shining in her half-open eyes, she got out of bed and pulled on her warm clothes. She left the house half an hour later after shoveling a path out of the garage, gear gathered in a huge duffel slung over her brother's shoulders, skates dangling off the handlebars of her green bike and stick laying across her lap as she pedaled her way to the rink for the six am time slot.
Ohio State's Nadine Muzerall has had that level of dedication to hockey since she was a little girl, but she has carried that same determination to succeed with her throughout her career as it led her to her position as the head coach of the Buckeye women's hockey program.
In the years since those early-morning training sessions, Muzerall and the other women coaching in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association have proved their dedication to the sport of hockey and the development of the women's game time and time again through their willingness to face the challenges inherent in being a woman working in the sports industry. They've all at one point had to face the metaphorical harsh light of a new day for a chance to make a difference in the lives of the young women they coach.
A deep, pervading passion for the sport and the determination to be a part of the hockey community regardless of the sacrifices necessary, be they early morning practice sessions or time spent apart from their families, defines the female bench bosses of the WCHA. Each of the 12 women coaching in the league brings their years of competitive and coaching experience to the seven programs and the young women who are following in their footsteps.
These women are tied together by connections gained through the shared experience of having grown up immersed in the sport. They have played at the collegiate level and risen through the ranks to earn their current positions. They embody the idea of you were who you now teach, and they understand the importance of confident female role models who inspired their interest in this profession.
"I was lucky to have a few strong female coaches throughout my years of playing," said Minnesota Assistant Coach Bethany Brausen. "Winny Brodt-Brown in particular filled that role for me through high school. Then when I got to the University of Minnesota, I played under Natalie Darwitz and Nadine Muzerall. All of these women taught me so many valuable lessons in their own way. They also encouraged me to give back to the game and get involved."
Each of the women behind the WCHA's benches shared a similar story of the encouragement they received that was reinforced by the presence of a woman in a leadership role during their time as a player or throughout their coaching career.
First year assistant coaches Emma Terres of Bemidji State and Zoe Hickel of Ohio State credit their mothers as being the first to inspire them towards a career in coaching. Hickel spent her childhood watching her mother run various programs for other kids, including STEAM, soccer and hockey programs whereas Terres' mother spent her career in the classroom.
"My mom was a teacher and just loves to help others, and that's where my desire to teach and educate started." Terres explained. "Then once I started playing, I knew I would never be ready to say goodbye to hockey, so coaching was the perfect transition after hanging up the skates."
"I've been influenced by so many great mentors and leaders in my life and this felt like the next step in that journey." Hickel agreed.
Minnesota Duluth Head Coach Maura Crowell, like many of the women coaching in the WCHA, lauds the women who came before her as some of the major influences in her life and career. From former USA Hockey director, Michelle Amidon, who offered her a position at National Team camp to the athletic director at UMass Boston who took Crowell under her wing during her first head-coaching position to Harvard's Katey Stone, Crowell has a list of the women who supported her as she learned to ply her craft.
"The opportunity to be around people like that and learn from them and have them be female was hugely influential in my life," said Crowell. "That's what I want to be to all the people around me. As a female leader in a position of power right now it's my responsibility to do the same and be that to other people."
Whether they were inspired by literal legends in the sport or coached by some of the same women they now coach against, each of the WCHA's female coaches carries an echo of all the women who made it possible for them to be back on the ice with her in these roles. Still, what makes each generation rise above the previous is the ability to build upon the foundation, become pillars of the sport themselves.
"I think it's important that we become our own role models for each other," St. Cloud State Assistant Coach Molly Engstrom said.
With such a well-rounded set of women coaching with and against them every weekend, there is no doubt that these coaches have filled that role for each other.
"I have extremely qualified coaches in the positions that they're in," Crowell affirmed. "The fact that they're female is not by accident." I think it's important for our players to have female role models. That's one thing, but it's also important for them to see females in leadership positions."
Collegiate athletics and women's hockey in particular have come a long way in being inclusive towards women who seek the limited coaching positions that the NCAA has to offer, but women need to be part of every level of the sport in order for women in positions of power to become a social norm rather than a hope for someday.
"I personally never experienced having a female coach until I came to college," shared Wisconsin's Jackie Crum. "We had a female assistant coach and having that was amazing. Female-to-female is a little different than female-to-male. I think, as a player, when you have a female on staff it's easier to relate to them and sometimes, though not always, have a closer connection to them. Having somebody to not necessarily look up to but rather someone who proves that 'hey I can have a career in coaching,'"
Crum admitted that such a career was something she didn't realize would be a possibility for her until she arrived at Wisconsin as an undergraduate. The Badger assistant coach's freshman campaign was only the third season in Wisconsin women's hockey history. Crum and her teammates were the building blocks of what is now a national powerhouse in the sport, and having an alumna return to take up a role behind the bench is a powerful image for a player to take in each and every day.
"Having players see me or other women coaching in the league can inspire them to think, 'Hey I could be a coach if I want to be. That's attainable.' Crum said.
What makes these young women who return to the WCHA so crucial to the league's success isn't the fact that we're adding more women to our coaching staffs. It's the reality that we are bringing competent, experienced women in to guide female athletes who are looking for an example of 'what can come next for me?'
"We not only have a lot of women behind our benches," said St. Cloud State Associate Head Coach Jinelle Siergiej. "But these women have been very successful players. I believe that is an important distinction, and I am honored to coach with and against women that understand the game so well."
Siergiej, a former Badger who played in the WCHA from 2004-08 is right to point out the stacked resumes of the women currently coaching in the WCHA. Four have played in the National Women's Hockey League or an early iteration of what is now the NWHL. Three have suited up for the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League. Three have represented their country on the national stage.
Additionally, Terres, Crowell, Crum, Engstrom, Hickel, Muzerall, Siergiej and Minnesota Duluth's Ashleigh Brykaliuk have all laced up their skates on international ice. They've played in Switzerland, China, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic. They've brought home Olympic medals and experienced what the wider world has to offer. All of their accumulated knowledge accompanied them when they came home, and they are uniquely qualified to guide their current WCHA players as they pursue similar paths.
"We have had some amazing athletes come through our league, and it's awesome to see many of them back in the league as coaches." said Shari Dickerson. The Minnesota State assistant coach who is currently in her 12th year behind the bench for the Mavericks played on the very first Minnesota Whitecaps team before returning to coach at her alma mater. "It shows that their life was impacted by the sport and coaches that they were able to play for. There is a lot of passion for the sport within our league and you can see it in the women who hold the coaching positions. Every one of them is well respected and radiates a passion for the sport and for the development of student-athletes as both hockey players and people."
These women have the skill to not just tell but also show. An ability that stems from having been there, having had to learn this before, practice it over and over until it becomes muscle memory.
"It's always bittersweet," Terres admitted when asked about the recent end to her playing career. "There are days I wish I could still put on the skates and jump out there, but I know how phenomenal my four years of college hockey were, and it makes me so happy seeing players experience the same things I did as well as accomplishing tremendous achievements. There is a new joy of writing up a play or teaching a skill and seeing it in a game."
These women continue to stand as examples of what is possible even for the athletes who don't pursue a career in hockey after graduation. The players can look at these women and see a person who has a master's degree, a passport filled with stamps and stories, a family.
"I think you have to have women on staff," Terres insisted. "Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, 'Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception.'"
"Positions of power have been overly saturated with males forever." Terres continued. "Finally seeing women consistently on the coaching staff is so important, especially for the players and young female athletes to see them and make their presence the new norm and expectation."
When we have conversations about how to empower young women, certain phrases crop up more often than others. Around National Girls and Women in Sports day, the hashtag #IfSheCanSeeIt regains its yearly swell of popularity, but the female presence in hockey remains consistent for the players who watch it play out in front of them every time they go to practice. There, right next to them on the ice, is proof that they can be it.
"I feel it is important for the next generation of leaders in our society to see women excelling in leadership positions." Brykaliuk agreed. "Sport has a unique way of unifying and bringing people together in society today, with many coaches at various levels holding tremendous amounts of respect from the rest of the public. It is important to have women present in coaching positions for the next generation of female athletes to see and learn from, but also for the rest of society to experience women in these leading roles as well."
The WCHA prides itself on being a league where the best come to play against the best. In the same vein, the best want to be coached by the best, regardless of gender. With a number of the WCHA's coaches having just begun their coaching careers, it is evident that the barriers that necessitated women pushing harder, proving themselves further before they are taken seriously are slowly weakening.
Such crucial change is settling at a good time for a league that has produced so many quality athletes and young women in its two decades that there is no shortage of talent the WCHA can welcome back in the years to come.
"We want more of our people coming full circle," Hickel affirmed. "The people that encouraged me to want to coach were the people who shared their love of the game with me. Giving back now as a coach is a way to thank those pioneers of our sport as we pay it forward and encourage the next group of female leaders."